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It’s been a smooth ride for most Colorado voters, but even minor midterm glitches seem bigger in a volatile political climate

Voter suppression elsewhere casts a long shadow over relatively small problems in the state lauded for its safe voting environment

Voters cast ballots at a polling location in Denver on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Absentee ballots that didn’t make it back to Denver. Some 61,000 Adams County ballots that wound up in storage for a week, instead of in voters’ hands. Drop-off boxes stuffed to the brim. Worries among voters whose drop-off sites blur county lines that their ballots might not be counted.

It hasn’t been a silky smooth experience for every Coloradan as Election Day 2018 finally arrives. But midterm glitches so far appear relatively minor — at least compared to issues surrounding signature verification in some states, a shifted polling site in Kansas,  unsubstantiated accusations of elections hacking in Georgia and reports of translators barred from polls in Texas.

Colorado is ranked as the safest state for election security. Still, issues do crop up. And at a time of heightened national concern about voting rights, even minor miscues can seem magnified.

In Denver, Nancy Francis dutifully sent her 23-year-old son’s ballot to him in California, where he’s stationed with the Marines. She even sent it to a third party, since military mail delivery can be spotty. Once he received it, they spent hours on the phone talking through the candidates and issues.

“He had a lot of questions,” Francis said. “He really worked this ballot. So I can tell you he put a lot of thought into it. Last week he sent it in.”

VOTER GUIDE 2018: Resources, explainers, latest news and more

But he recently received a letter dated Nov. 2 from the Denver Clerk and Recorder’s office telling him that his ballot hadn’t been received, possibly because of a defective barcode on his return envelope. Since he already had mailed his ballot, his remaining option is to vote through a secure, online portal.

That might work for most absentee voters, Francis said, but for people serving in the military, like her son, that could effectively disenfranchise them if they’re stationed where they don’t have access to the technology.

As it turns out, her son’s unit is on a six-week training exercise in the desert. But fortuitously for him, he’s taking a class in San Diego, so he should be able to reconstruct his ballot online.

Flawed barcodes on return envelopes for 238 absentee voters prevented ballots from being returned to the Denver Elections Division through the mail. Those voters have been contacted and give the option to either vote online by 7 p.m. Tuesday or to return a new paper ballot within eight days, said Alton Dillard, a spokesman with the Denver elections office. He said none of the ballots were sent to anyone overseas.

“I’m sure they didn’t do it on purpose,” Francis said, “but in this climate where you have this Georgia situation, the situation with Native Americans in North Dakota — all these places people perceive being blocked from voting — we don’t need that here. People’s confidence is low.”

Other election missteps, while small, took on a variety of forms.

In Pueblo County, Bryan Porter reported to ProPublica’s Electionland, a Colorado Sun partner, that when he went to vote in person in Pueblo on Oct. 26 he ended up with a ballot from the incorrect precinct.

Porter said he noticed the error about halfway through voting and alerted election officials. They switched him to a different machine with the proper precinct information. But Porter, 40, was still concerned when he talked with The Colorado Sun.

“Nobody working at that main polling center had any idea why the error occurred, and there were no checks and balances in place to prevent it,” he said. “Who knows how many people have voted in the wrong races or who have not gotten to vote in the races they should?”

But Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert Ortiz said that’s the only instance of a mistaken precinct he knows about. He said the error occurred when a precinct worker clicked on the precinct above the one where Porter lives.

“We retrained all of the judges that were in charge of that and added a second check … to make sure it was the proper precinct,” Ortiz said.

A pair of internet outages that hit a large section of La Plata County in southwest Colorado threw a wrench into walk-in voting at the county’s three polling places, but patience largely prevailed and inconvenience was kept to a minimum.

The first of the two outages came around 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and lasted about 20 minutes, said Tiffany Parker, La Plata County clerk and recorder. Shortly after 11 a.m., service went out for another 10 minutes.

The problem meant that poll workers couldn’t immediately verify individuals’ voter registration.

“It was definitely something that we couldn’t control,” Parker said. “We offered voters provisional ballots immediately. Nobody was turned away.”

Among the three voting sites, only 14 people voted with provisional ballots. The rest didn’t mind waiting for the internet service to return.

“Everything has gone so beautifully,” Parker said around noon. “Then that happened. But the beauty of the mail ballot is most people drop them off and are not voting in person.”

Unfortunately, the FastTracks internet service went down again in the early afternoon. This time, La Plata County voting sites issued an estimated 70 provisional ballots by the time service returned, Parker said, though she hadn’t completed an official tally.

Service went out for short periods of 10 minutes or so three more times after the morning problems. Parker said she had not heard a reason for the outage. FastTrack officials did not immediately return a message from The Colorado Sun seeking an explanation for the interruption.

La Plata County was still experiencing a robust turnout.

“Drive-by drop-offs have all been going crazy,” Parker said.

Voters venturing out to drop off their ballots over the weekend also reported a slight logistical glitch. Some ballot boxes were stuffed so full that people hesitated to try to cram theirs in.

The Colorado Republican Committee even sent out an alert instructing voters what to do if they ran into such a problem (visit the Secretary of State’s website to find another nearby location).

Voter enthusiasm filled a ballot drop-off at the sheriff’s substation in Highlands Ranch over the weekend, but after reports filtered in on social media, the problem was addressed.

“They said a deputy spotted it and told people to go to a nearby drop-off box,” said Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. “They emptied the boxes (Sunday) night.”

Election judges process ballots at Denver’s 14th Avenue and Bannock Street polling station on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Another overstuffed ballot drop-off site in Westminster may have been the result of a change in designated locations in an area that used to share one site between Jefferson and Adams counties.

Voters from Jefferson County, who had been accustomed to using the site at Westminster’s city hall, may have continued to drop their ballots there despite the change to a Westminster parks and recreation center location. Julie Jackson, spokeswoman for the Adams County clerk and recorder, said crews were emptying boxes multiple times on Monday and will do the same on Election Day.

Jefferson County spokeswoman Beth Clippinger, tongue in cheek, termed the glitch a “voter-training issue.”

“I think there has been talk about for the next election, going back to sharing that site, because it’s a voter-training issue to get them to not go to the same place, just because they’ve always gone there for 10 years. The box is not there anymore for us.”

Another location that straddles a county line unsettled a voter in Erie, where both Boulder and Weld County residents drop off their ballots. Aside from candidates, residents of the two counties often have very strong and diverse views regarding issues like the oil and gas industry — a big one on this year’s ballot — so one woman took to Facebook to explain her dilemma when she went to her assigned drop-off place and found it designated for Weld County.

Boulder County resident Ingrid Muller-Ramsey balked at the possibility of placing her ballot in the wrong box, even though a receptionist at the site told her the ballots would be separated by county later.  Other voters at the location also voiced concern, she said, and ultimately decided to drop their ballots in downtown Boulder. She settled on the same course of action.

“I’m still wrestling with whether I’m being paranoid,” Muller-Ramsey wrote.

Bartels of the Secretary of State’s office said that such mixing of ballots near county lines isn’t uncommon — Adams and Arapahoe counties would be another example — and that voters shouldn’t fret. The boxes are emptied by bipartisan teams of judges who get them to the appropriate counting area.

“Nobody’s ballot has been thrown out because it’s in the wrong box,” Bartels said, noting that dropping them in the right box just makes it  “easier and faster for your clerks. There’s lots of boxes.”

In Adams County, where a truckload of ballots sat in storage for a week after being turned away from a postal facility, nearly 121 voters returned mail-in ballots through Monday, compared with 87,000 in 2014. The ballots, which remained in the truck in a secure area, were delivered to the Postal Service on Oct. 23 under supervision of the Adams County Clerk’s and Secretary of State’s office.

“After all those 60,000 went out we really haven’t had a lot of calls from people who haven’t received” ballots, said Adams County spokeswoman Jackson.

A 2018 Colorado ballot. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A few hundred people didn’t receive ballots in Bent County, so the county remailed them. Some voters ended up with two ballots, but Deputy County Clerk Lynda Moss said the county will count only one of the ballots per voter.

And at least one voter told 9News that his ballot was initially rejected based on his signature. But Colorado law requires such voters to be notified, and they get an opportunity to fix the issue.

Meanwhile, Just Vote! Colorado Election Protection, a coalition that includes Colorado Common Cause, is offering a call center, 866-687-8683 for English and 888-839-8682 for Spanish speakers, through 7 p.m. Tuesday, and a website to respond to voter questions.

Caroline Fry, outreach director for Common Cause, said questions from people who didn’t receive ballots in the mail and from those asking where they can drop off ballots have been among the most common.

“We’re pretty surprised by the number of voter questions we’ve seen so far,” Fry said. “There’s a lot of buzz out there.”

She noted that many people who aren’t registered are unaware they can go to a polling location, register and vote on Election Day.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the coalition Just Vote! Colorado Election Protection, is offering the call center and website to voters.

This story includes a tip from ProPublica’s Electionland project, which monitors voting problems around the country. If you had trouble voting, or if you saw something you want to tell us about, use this online form, Facebook messenger or a texting application that you can find at the top of the Electionland page.


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